During a recent trip to Croatia's beautiful city of Split, I was lucky enough to partake in what can only be described as a wine tasting extravaganza, hosted by The Art of Wine. Before I go into the details of our experience, I would first like to clarify that I use the term "tasting" loosely. I'm not sure if it was Croatian hospitality or a which-tourist-will-fall-over-first competition between our hosts, but rather than the usual small taster of wine, we were given full glasses to try. There were also no spit buckets in sight, not that I was planning on using one anyway (that's a waste of perfectly good wine!). Add on top of this some very generous and plentiful refills, and by the end of the evening one member of our party was having a heart-to-heart conversation with a donkey named Trevor whilst I attempted to steal the neighbor's dog. Perhaps Wine Gauntlet would have been a more fitting term.
But I'm getting ahead of myself now. Let's start from the beginning...
We were picked up at our apartment by Tino, a strapping young Croatian lad who would be our chauffeur, tour-guide and (let's be honest) minder for the evening. He pointed out some local sights on our way to the first vineyard and helped to set the jovial, relaxed tone for the evening.
Our first stop was the the Putalj Winery which produces red and rosé wines made from an ancient Croatian grape called Crljenak Kaštelanski (better know as Zinfandel or Primativo) and its offspring Plavac Mali.
First interesting fact of the day: for all those who tend to associate Zinfandel wine with California, DNA testing has recently proved that the Zinfandel grape actually originated in Croatia. Mind. Blown.
The Putalj Winery is run by Anton Kovač who is incredibly passionate about continuing his family's wine-making legacy. Anton began our tour by taking us around the vineyard where he encouraged us to eat the grapes straight off the vines. We then took a seat on a patio overlooking the beautiful vineyard and munched on some bread and cheese while Anton poured us a glass (okay, maybe three) of his tasty Zinfandel rosé.
After a bit of relaxing we were then loaded into our chariots and driven to Anton's home, which also serves as the main hub for his wine-making operation. Here we were offered tasters of all of his red wines straight out of their fermentation tanks. Anton quizzed us on which ones we preferred and seemed genuinely interested in our feedback (mine being "I like wine!")
He then led us into his wine tasting cellar where we were treated to generous meat and cheese platters. As we happily stuffed our faces (stuffing your face is key when drinking so much wine!) Anton ensured our glasses were never empty. At one point he even left me with two full glasses so that I could compare the differences in taste (my conclusion? "I like ALL the wine!").
Several glasses of wine and one annihilated cheese plate later, Tino informed us that it was time to leave for the second winery of the day. And so we bid Anton goodbye and continued on our journey.
Our next stop was the Vuina Winery run by Neven Vuina. This winery specializes in wine made from the rare and seldom-used Babica grape. In fact, Neven's Babica Štafileo is the only wine in the world which is made purely from this nearly-extinct grape.
The wine tasting room at Vuina seemed to be more of a glorified garage, but there was something strangely charming and authentic about this. We were once again greeted by a mouth-watering spread of food, including some delicious homemade pana cotta from Neven's wife. We were soon grateful for such a lush spread, as Nevan ensured that our glasses were never sans wine. This of course led to much merriness, and before we knew it Tino was politely attempting to nudge us out the door as we were running late for the third and final leg of our wine tasting experience. With the promise of a hot meal waiting for us at the next destination (because obviously what we really needed after all that food and wine was MORE food and wine), we piled into our chariots and off we went.
A little shy of two hours late (oops), we finally arrived at our last location: a gorgeous farmhouse where a home-cooked meal and (you guessed it) more wine was waiting for us. The farmhouse was chock-full of oddities and antiques, which we were invited to explore and examine upon our arrival. We then sat down to a hearty meal whilst Tino yet again filled our wine glasses. After the meal had been sufficiently pulverized, Tino piped up and asked if anyone wanted to meet the farmhouse's resident donkey. Naturally, my hand was the first one in the air.
Tino took us outside and introduced us to an adorable donkey whose name we quickly decided was Trevor. As we milled around the farmhouse, looking up at the stars whilst my friend the Donkey Whisperer continued to converse with Trevor, we unanimously declared our wine tasting excursion a success. Seven hours and copious amounts of wine and cheese later, it was all we could do to waddle up the path and plop ourselves into the car. And when Tino noticed that one of our group was attempting to tipsily smuggle out a half-drunk bottle of wine? His reply was simply, "Let me get you the cap for that." Truly Croatian hospitality at its finest.
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My verdict: The Art of Wine tour is a relatively new operation and as such they're still fine-tuning the itinerary, but I'd say what they're doing so far is working very well. They do a great job of creating a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere, and you feel like you're really experiencing an authentic slice of Croatia's wine-making world. Word about their tours is spreading fast (their bookings have skyrocketed in the past year) so make sure to reserve your spot in advance. The wine tasting package is currently set at 150 euros a person, which might sound steep but I'd say it's a very fair price for what you get. It's also probably worth mentioning that the tasting is supposed to be 4-5 hours. Ours lasted 7 (oops). Word of advice: don't book anything after the tasting (you won't be able to get there anyway once your wine and cheese coma sets in!).